For many of us, the High Street is the beating heart of our community. A place for people to meet, socialise and shop, and where businesses, large and small, can thrive. It can also be a focal point for the local economy, where jobs and wealth are both created.
But we neglect high streets at our risk. Gone are the days when their vibrancy is enough in itself to secure their success.
With online giants like Amazon becoming even more dominant, and the ease of online shopping in our hectic and busy lives all the more attractive, businesses are finding ways to adapt to the modern world. We have seen this most recently in Barclays’ disappointing decision to close their bank in Uppingham, and in a number of empty premises in Melton.
We each have to do our bit if we want to ensure our high streets to prosper. That, of course, includes the Government.
That is why I am pleased we have delivered over £10 billion of business rates support since 2016, in addition to the £1.5 billion package announced at the 2018 Budget specifically designed to support high streets. We have cut small retailers’ bills by a third and taken 600,000 businesses out of paying business rates altogether, so our local businesses are able to generate more local jobs for their communities.
Last year the Government announced a panel of experts to look at issues that affect the health of our high streets and advise on the best practical measures to help them thrive, both now and, of course, in the future. Chaired by Sir John Timpson, Chairman of Timpson, the panel has focused on what consumers and local communities want from their high streets, assessing the challenges currently facing them and finding solutions to help them remain the community hubs they are.
One of the recommendations the panel has put forward is the creation of a Town Centre Task Force to support local leaders to act as a single voice in finding unique solutions for communities. That includes encouraging them to think innovatively about empty properties.
Indeed, 27,000 properties remain vacant in England’s town centres. By relaxing planning rules to support new homes on our high streets, we can help to ensure they continue to be busy, well-populated centres, and importantly, provide thousands more people with a roof over their head.
Finally, we are supporting local authorities with both finance and resource, putting aside £675 million through a Future High Street Fund to create better spaces for our communities. Here in Rutland and Melton, I know the local councils are carefully looking at how we can best use this funding to enhance our own high streets.
Whether it’s every day or only occasionally, all of us, in one form or another, rely on the local high street. If we want them to still be there, we must actively go out there and support them.